She Loves Me
Jerry Bock (Music); Sheldon Harnick (Lyrics); Joe Masteroff (Book)
Based on a Play by Miklós Lázló
42nd Street Moon
At 42nd Street Moon, it is Christmas in June; and an old favorite is under this year’s tree, She Loves Me. The multi-Tony-nominated 1963 musical by Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), and Joe Masteroff (book) started as a 1937 play Parfumerie by Hungarian Miklós Lázló and later had several iterations as well-known movies, both as films (the 1940 The Shop Around the Corner and the 1998 You’ve Got Mail) and as a Judy Garland/Van Johnson-starring musical in 1949’s The Good Old Summertime. Oft-staged in the Bay Area, the current package when opened at the Moon sports moments of sheer delight but sometimes misses opportunities to produce the kind of ongoing chuckles and outright guffaws that generally fill a night shopping at a certain parfumerie in Budapest.
The endurance of She Loves Me in all its stage and film versions is easy to understand. All it takes is a simple storyline about two of the most unlikely people falling hopelessly in love for the tale to endure forever. Take two store clerks (Amalia and Georg) who outwardly despise each other, quarreling constantly to the dismay of their co-workers in an upscale perfume shop. Each is quite the romantic with a secret pen pal and already in love with that someone never met. Both are out for a huge surprise when finally the cat is out of the bag that their biggest irritant in life is also their sought-after mate for life.
As the story opens in the summer of 1934, all is going well for the Maraczek’s Parfumerie star clerk Georg Nowack (clearly the favorite of the congenial owner, Mr. Maraczek) until she arrives looking for a job – the rapidly talking, smartly dressed, but oh-so-pushy Amalia Balash. Yet not hired, she spontaneously begins a non-stop pitch to sell to an open-mouthed, astonished lady a wooden cigarette box that also plays music when opened (in this case, the well-timed piano twinkling of pianist Daniel Thomas). Breathlessly convincing the skeptical buyer that the box is actually for candy, Marah Sotelo as Amalia sings a duet with the tinkling box itself, concluding its music is “like the voice of God” to warn its lucky, sweet-toothed owner of the song’s title: “No More Candy.”
Given that Georg has just bet Mr. Maraczek “ten and six” that no one would buy the stupid boxes, Amalia becomes the new shop’s star and Georg’s instant rival. Riley McFarland’s Georg increasingly huffs and puffs as Amalia flutters about as the shop’s new star, with the two hardly missing a chance to send zingers (or a stuck-out tongue) each other’s way every chance they get.
All the while, each of the two at war is also writing letters to an unnamed, unseen friend who is actually the one person neither can hardly tolerate being near each day at work. As his face literally radiates with ever-increasing love for his unknown pen pal, Riley McFarland’s Georg sings “Three Letters” with a voice fresh and full, “pouring out my hopes and dreams to you … oh dear friend.” When the two letter exchangers finally decide to meet, his George is a jumpy, jerky, body-flopping ball of nerves as he hilariously but wonderfully intones with much anticipation, “Tonight at 8.” That same winning combination of impressive vocals and comedic flair culminates toward the evening’s climax in a full stage, tour de force number when Georg singly dances, prances, and even somersaults in ecstasy while singing “She Loves Me.”
As Amalia, Marah Sotelo is less consistent in delivering her share of love songs to her unknown friend (“Three Letters,” “Will He Like Me,” “Dear Friend”). While singing with an overall pleasant voice, her Amalia’s affect is too often quite flat in its expression during her numbers. Her tendency to sing her sustained notes with vibrato does not always fit the mood of the song, especially in numbers like “Where’s My Shoe” in which the more serious-sounding vocals do not match the chance to accentuate a number’s hilarity that often borders on silly, rambunctious slapstick.
One of the joys of She Loves Me is the plethora of quirky characters surrounding the two, would-be lovers, with each given by the writers a chance to strut their stuff at least once during the course of the evening. Never missing a chance to insert one more of his myriad of continuously hilarious facial expressions is the background-hugging, often silent, but always observing store clerk, Ladislav Sipos as deliciously played by Nick Nakashima. With a wonderfully distinctive stage-speaking voice and a singing voice full of dynamism, he delivers a winning “Perspective” as a cautious Ladislav defines his guidelines for a safe, conflict-free life: “Always humble, not an ounce of self-respect … ‘Scuse me while I genuflect.”
In knickers and bow tie, the congenial delivery boy Arpad Laszlo pleads to Mr. Maraczek (Lee Shawn) with much charm and chutzpah for a promotion into store clerk, with Roeen Nooran using a charming voice and a host of big-motion, quick-move demonstrations of his selling abilities to make his case. His chance is heightened after a certain suave, playboy clerk, Steven Kodaly, steps out one too many times with yet another (and this time, definitely the wrong) woman – Kodaly played with much debonair, a little sleaze, and a ton of rich, baritone crooning by William Giammona.
Kodaly’s roaming-hand moves and neck smooches with store receptionist Ilona Ritter leaves her determined to find her own Mr. Right (“I Resolve”), even though in the past, “I must be cousin to a cat, I always end up with a rat.” Sophia Alawi’s Ilona paces well through the fast and funny lyrics of “A Trip to the Library” where she meets whom she quickly decides is the man she only has eyes for – an optometrist named Paul. (However, as sometimes continues to true in 42nd Street productions, her Ilona is often in sore need for a mike so that her well-sung but not always high-enough-volume vocals can be clearly heard above the well-played four-instrument, background band under Daniel Thomas’ musical direction.)
Included in the cast of fifteen are a number of versatile ensemble members who take turns in roles such as shoppers, restaurant diners, and would-be lovers. Bekah Lynn Broas, Monica Rose Slater, and Deborah Rosengaus join the store’s male clerks in “Sounds While Selling,” where three, over-lapping, sung sales pitches are heard by us as such phrases as “I would like to see … a face like yours … cracked” or “You may want to dye … your hangnails.” A store-and-stage filling flock of shoppers and clerks (also including Milo Boland, Ben Chau-Chiu, and Daniel Gilmer) become increasingly fraught and frenzied as carolers count down the shopping days singing “Twelve Days of Christmas,” with customers at first politely and later with fists and fury snapping up those last-minute purchases.
The Eastern-European-accented Ted Zoldan has a starring moment as an ever-watchful, headwaiter does his best to ensure for his diners “A Romantic Atmosphere.” While singing in a phrased manner with purposeful pauses an atmosphere-defining song, all but falls apart as a clumsy but cute busboy (Daniel Gilmer) entices a room full of diners into lines of swayed dance and conga (choreography by Leslie Waggoner).
While there is much to like about so many of these performances, the full potential of the script’s inherent hilarity is not quite met. Director Peet Cocke (in my opinion) short-changes some of the scenes where the forces of comedy could have taken over much more than they did (e.g., the scenes of “Where’s My Shoes” and the clanging clumsiness of a busboy). Also, an important off-stage action by a much- distressed Mr. Maraczek is largely undefined from an audience standpoint, given the sound effect is curiously a piano bang. Overall, the pace feels at times a bit labored, especially during the many set changes that are somewhat clumsy and noisy with a result of some lost energy and momentum that continuously must be regained in the next scene.
Still, there is much fun to be had in 42nd Street Moon’s welcoming-of-summer venture into old Europe Budapest. The Christmas-time climax of this romantic comedy musical is as feel-good as ever, even for a veteran She Loves Me fan like myself who has just taken now his seventh trip into Maraczek’s Parfumerie.
Rating: 3 E
She Loves Me continues through June 25, 2023, in production by 42nd Street Moon at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://42ndstmoon.org.
Photo Credits: Ben Krantz Studio